England v Sri Lanka, 4th ODI, Lord's May 31, 2014

Sri Lanka's other power couple

While Kumar Sangakkara has developed into a dominating one-day batsman, Tillakaratne Dilshan has become a reformed dasher. Together they are one-day cricket's form pairing

Through the course of life, people move in and out of each others' grasp. They forge alliances, break them, move together and then drift apart. Lifelong bonds are most rewarding, but rare. More often, people make temporary associations, built on a coincidence of interests or desires.

In the Sri Lanka team, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene share an elemental connection. On the field, on tour and in the public imagination, they are inseparable. In both ODI and Test partnership lists, they are the only non-openers in the top five.

But in recent years, they are not the pair who have brought most success for Sri Lanka in ODIs. Not even close. As reflexes, techniques and temperaments change in the twilight of their careers, Sangakkara has come to a confluence with Tillakaratne Dilshan. They are an odd couple, but strangely good together. The nature of their association has been even more surprising than its success.

At 36, Sangakkara has never been a better ODI batsman. Some sportsmen are said to age like a fine red wine, but in cricket, few have lived that maxim out more emphatically than Sangakkara. He has hit more than 1000 runs in each of the past three calendar years, and is more than halfway to that target again in 2014. In the first decade of his career, he managed it only twice.

There are more arrows in his quiver now: lap-scoops to the fine-leg boundary and uppercuts over third man. Since 2013, he dominates attacks, when he used to wear them down. Not many batsmen in the game are in better shape.

A year older, Dilshan seems to be on an inexorable decline. At Lord's, he had four attempts at crashing wide balls through the covers in the Powerplay, and mistimed the stroke each time. That shot was once his most productive. Yet, through a combination of will and wit, he is now the best ODI batsman he has ever been as well. In his last 16 innings, Dilshan has failed to reach thirty only four times. Of the 12 successful innings, he struck at over 90 runs per 100 balls only once.

Sri Lanka's 172-run second-wicket stand on Saturday seemed like a role-reversal to some but, in reality, it is the new order of things: Sangakkara the bold aggressor with Dilshan's steady support in tow. They have made prolific progress this way.

Since 2012, they have hit 2044 runs in each others' company, at an average of 56.77. No other pair has scored more than 1500, and that average is easily the highest among pairs to have hit 1000 together. It is odd to think that while Sangakkara has become an out-and-out matchwinner, Dilshan has become the more consistent batsman. Since 2012, Dilshan has also made 1081 alongside Mahela Jayawardene - the fourth duo on the list.

Like all good partnerships, Dilshan and Sangakkara are counterpoints to the other's weakness. Sangakkara is unsteady early in his innings, poking at the ball with hard hands, but Dilshan is a more effortless starter, regularly finding the square boundary on either side of the pitch. At Lord's, Sangakkara was in visible strife in the Powerplay but Dilshan eased their burden with two scoops for four off James Anderson. Sangakkara would not climb out of his rut until his score was 8 off 26 deliveries.

As the field goes out and Dilshan's scoring dips, Sangakkara moves to even out the run rate, picking gaps powerfully, forcing field changes, then mocking the new arrangements with a spate of calculated strikes. Dilshan had been on 35 before Sangakkara went into double figures, but Sangakkara would reach fifty first, by one ball. They had had a nearly equal share of the first 100 runs of their partnership, but as Sangakkara grew more fluent, he hit 46 of the last 72 runs, and Dilshan only 21.

Beyond the challenges their right-hand/left-hand combination poses for fielding captains, contrasting styles prevents bowlers from finding rhythm in the middle overs. Sangakkara likes to play spin from the crease, but Dilshan charges forward or slides right back. Sangakkara hits to traditional parts of the ground, but Dilshan puts the ball in strange spaces. Alaistair Cook tried all his bowlers and a variety of fields during the partnership, but only the artificial urgency brought on by the batting Powerplay could shake the pair's grip on the innings.

When Dilshan departed for 71 in the 36th over, Sri Lanka were already well-placed to push for 300. Typically, Sangakkara would forge ahead to triple figures. Of his 19 ODI tons, more than 40% have come since 2012. As their careers twist in different directions, he and Dilshan have found sudden room for each other. Pushed to the brink of defeat in the series, their happy meeting of the ways kept Sri Lanka alive for the final game.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on June 1, 2014, 16:31 GMT

    Future looks somewhat scary after Sanga, Dilshan and Malinga go. Expect younger brigade to grow into their roles. While Sanga has been continuously picking up smarts, Dilshan has matured containing himself from his natural free scoring tendencies.

  • Pinidiya on June 1, 2014, 16:02 GMT

    Just another ODI to show the absolute need of a SOLID Opener, who can build a long inning without putting pressure on Sanga and rest of the batters within the initial overs! If not for Sangakkara and Tillakaratne Dilshan's 172 for the second wicket, SL could have easily ended up fastening the fate of the series!

    When Kusal Perera couldn't last beyond 5 overs (as we have repeatedly seen during the past 11 months) Sanga had to carry the opener's responsibilities with Dil. Their 30 over partnership was the backbone of SL match winning total. Previous ODI was a typical demonstration of an instance, where Sanga failed to absorb the pressure & shoulder the burden of early breakdown at the top. This triggered a total collapse ending up in a shameful defeat!

    As I have pointed out again & again, If SL to succeed in next World Cup, they need to utilize the valuable resources available to fill the most VITAL specialist OPENER's abyss!

  • Dummy4 on June 1, 2014, 15:42 GMT

    After dilshan's departure Ashan Priyanjan should have made it to the wicket,as the commentators said a fearless batsmen at that stage would have addedd 20-30 runs more,Mahela has always been an innings builder i can't see the great coming in at no 5 at the 35th over and start hammering the ball, priyanjan could be used and possibly even senanayake,Good win SL but we should have clinched it much earlier as buttler came in if malinga had been brought in we could have fnished the game off,anyways final at trent bridge i think will be a cracker go sl

  • Neranjan on June 1, 2014, 12:22 GMT

    Very interesting comparison, which shows how the two batsman have adapted in the long run to survive and thrive. This combination has bought success to sri lanka in recent times.

  • Dummy4 on June 1, 2014, 11:44 GMT

    Sending Mahela ahead of Mathew and sending Lajhiru ahead of Priyangan was inexplicable

  • Blake on June 1, 2014, 10:32 GMT

    The best part about Sri Lanka touring your country is the articles by Andrew Fidel Fernando on Cricinfo. Well done.

  • Rizwan on June 1, 2014, 8:57 GMT

    There has been only one man EVER to have scored a ODI century in a wold cup semi- final and final - MAHELA - He is a big match player unlike Sanga whose only innings of substance was in the t 20 final recently - Therefore , Mahela is allowed to fail until he gets back in the groove.

  • Leo on June 1, 2014, 8:47 GMT

    Kulasekera is not the second best death bowler SL possesses. One day he is going to be slaughtered for more than 20 runs per over as in this 4th ODI. One day he is going to get SL knocked out of the series with two bad overs. We have to make him bowl more overs at the top of the inning, like what Arjuna used to do with Vaas. Kule cannot be made to bowl after the 40 th over, as then his ball is 20 overs old, and he simply does not know how to get reverse swing. He has been an old style orthodox swing bowler with a good slower ball leg cutter and a back of the hand variation thrown in. That's all. That's insufficient for death bowling. He has no pace. He also needs to be able to think on his feet. He almost screwed up a comfortable SL victory this evening.

  • Naveen on June 1, 2014, 7:50 GMT

    Wonderful article, as always, to read. I think we are getting lucky enough to read Roebucksque writeups. Keep it up Andrew, love ya.

  • Ranil on June 1, 2014, 7:35 GMT

    Priyangan should have come out at the fall of Dilshan in the power play to play a cameo. His loss would not have then caused much of an issue to the team. Mahela did not follow Sanga's example of joining a county outfit prior to the tour trusting his 'skills' as usual but I would remind him that as age catches up you cannot sit on your past & think he can pull the magic back as before & he better find some pre tour assignment in NZ or Australia prior to the world cup to do well in his ICC event.

  • No featured comments at the moment.